Black girls and trauma

Here’s how one Memphis school is changing the way it disciplines girls of color

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students at Aspire Coleman listen during a sixth-grade math class. The Memphis charter school has changed its disciplinary practices in recent years to be more informed about the effects of emotional trauma, especially among female black students.

When a 12-year-old girl entered her fifth elementary school in five years, she arrived with a lengthy suspension record — and a past filled with sexual violence and neglect.

Chronic conflict at home had made it hard for her to listen in class and avoid fights with peers. But at Aspire Coleman, a state-run charter school in Memphis, she felt heard by her teachers for the first time. The seventh-grader is poised to finish her first full school year suspension-free.

“I used to get into more drama and fights at school,” said the girl, whose name is withheld to protect her identity. “I was just really angry, and then I’d get embarrassed when teachers yelled at me. But here, I don’t get yelled at like that. We just talk.”

Leaders at Aspire Coleman, whose 525 students are mostly black and poor, have been revamping their disciplinary practices based on gender, with a special focus on girls of color who have experienced trauma. They now offer separate advisory classes to support girls and boys, and have trained staff on how to work with students who have been abused or neglected.

After three years, suspensions are down by two-thirds school-wide, and are well below the national rate for girls of color.

“Education can never be a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Principal Owen Ricciardi, “so why would we treat discipline any different?”

Researchers increasingly point to emotional trauma as the root of disciplinary problems that lead black girls, as a group, to be suspended or expelled six times more frequently than girls of any other race — more often than white boys, too. Trauma can range from abuse and neglect to homelessness and family dysfunction.

The data has school leaders across the nation rethinking their disciplinary policies. Last fall, the White House co-hosted a conference on the issue that drew representatives of at least 22 school systems from 15 states, including Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which oversees Aspire Coleman. The collective goal was to learn how to build more supportive climates that help black girls overcome childhood trauma and focus on academics, leading to fewer disciplinary infractions.

“The trauma a student experiences is often silent or invisible when that student is at school,” explains Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, which helped to spearhead the conference. “It’s harder for teachers to recognize and it requires training if you want to shift a school climate. Everyone in a school, from the bus driver to the principal, needs to be educated on signs of trauma, on the background of childhood trauma, and the trauma that can be unique to girls of color.”

Black girls comprise only 8 percent of the nation’s students, but represent 14 percent of those who receive one or more out-of-school suspensions, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection.

And researchers say time missed from school due to suspensions increases the odds of more disciplinary issues, dropping out of school, unwanted pregnancies, or being caught in the juvenile justice system.

The challenges hit home in Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which takes over the state’s lowest-performing schools and assigns them to charter operators like Aspire. Among the ASD’s 33 schools, most of which are in Memphis, more than 15 percent of female students have been suspended during the last three years. The vast majority of those girls are black.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Aspire Coleman mixes genders in academic classes but separates them in advisory support sessions.

At Aspire Coleman, almost 97 percent of the student body is black, and 48 percent are girls of color. During its first year as a charter school beginning in 2014, administrators suspended 15 percent of the school’s students, equating to a lot of missed instruction time. Ricciardi vowed to reduce that rate to zero and started out by developing gender-based approaches to discipline. Teachers were trained about the challenges that black girls face in poor neighborhoods, often causing them to act out. Next they learned about restorative justice approaches that build a positive school climate by emphasizing conversation, empathy and reconciliation.

“We’re trying to get educators to buy into the ‘why’ behind how kids act,” said Queria Nunnley, the assistant principal who has shepherded the new approach. “We don’t want them to see a student as acting bad. We want them to ask, ‘Why is this student acting out? What supports do they need?’”

While research on the academic effects of separating students by gender is mixed, educators at Aspire Coleman say gender-based disciplinary tactics have helped in one crucial way.

“We’ve found that girls are much more likely to open up about what’s going on if they are broken off into a group of their own gender,” said Breonna Ponder, who helps provide gender-based programs through Communities in Schools. “We can get deep with struggles that girls in this school disproportionately deal with — like how to be appropriate on social media, how to say no when a boy pressures them, or how to resolve conflict when they have two friends fighting.”

Chantavia Burton, chief of student equity and access for the state-run district, hopes the school’s lessons can be extrapolated to the ASD’s other schools.

“We’ve seen on a national scale the focus on school-to-prison pipelines, and that’s led to a focus on disparities in discipline practices for men of color,” Burton said. “We’re glad those conversations are happening, but we recognize there hasn’t been as big of a focus on the women in our schools. We want to change that. … Women in these communities bear burdens silently. It’s not talked about openly; girls internalize. We in education have to recognize that and realize that just suspending girls who are angry or acting out might not help them on the road to rehabilitation.”

Schools can start, Epstein said, simply by asking students what they are struggling with and what they need. Sometimes the difference is as simple as knowing that girls who have been abused by men would do better in a female teacher’s classroom.

Such was the case for the 12-year-old student who arrived at Aspire Coleman with a history of sexual abuse. Administrators asked her if she’d prefer a male or female teacher.

“It can be difficult for me with male teachers,” the girl acknowledged. “I feel like those personal things about me, the things that have made school hard for me, those get paid attention to here.”

Transition plan

Two state-run schools sharing a Memphis building will now share a principal, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A moving van sits outside of Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School. The state-run school relocated to a different ASD school because of roof damage, and the two schools will now share a principal.

When a state-run school had to relocate at the beginning of the school year because of a leaky roof, officials with the Achievement School District hoped students would soon be back.

That’s not going to happen, though. Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School will stay at its temporary home at nearby Frayser Achievement Elementary through the school year. And besides sharing a building, they will share a principal.

ASD officials announced this week that Yolanda Dandridge will take the lead of Frayser Elementary, in addition to her role as principal at Georgian Hills.

Verna Ruffin, chief of academics for the ASD, said the decision was made after Jessica Tang resigned as principal of Frayser Elementary. Assistant principals at both schools will now report to Dandridge.

Georgian Hills relocated to Frayser Elementary, two miles away, in August. Ruffin said the goal is still for Georgian Hills’ 258 students to move back into their original building after the school year ends and the building is fully repaired. At that point, the ASD either will promote the assistant principal already serving at the 207-student Frayser or bring in a new leader.

Georgian Hills, under Dandridge’s leadership, recently came off of Tennessee’s list of lowest-performing “priority schools.” That success was a deciding factor, Ruffin said, in asking Dandridge to take responsibility temporarily for both schools.

“This is not how we originally planned it, of course, but it’s an example of taking something that could be a big challenge, putting our heads together, and creating a plan that benefits two schools,” Ruffin said. “Frayser teachers will get to collaborate with an outstanding principal.”

Both schools, like most in the ASD, have struggled with enrollment. Early this school year, the student count at Georgian Hills was down by 20 percent and Frayser’s had fallen 30 percent.

But Ruffin said there have since been enrollment gains and that, in the case of Georgian Hills, a dip was expected with an abrupt change in location.

“It’s a matter of adjusting to put two schools in one location,” she said. “The opportunity to unify around one school leader in the building will hopefully make it a smoother rest of the year for everyone.”

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”